How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 2


That this major American historian is writing in defense of his preferred version of empire has been so little remarked upon that it is probably worth pausing here to establish the point separately.[i] What bothers White is not empire per se, but empire in a certain mode—not the subtle remaking of native institutions to the benefit of the French, but the blunt assertion of sovereignty more typical of the other European powers, their wholesale replacement of indigenous institutions, and the easy recourse they took to coercion. The Middle Ground thus rehearses the familiar motifs of late twentieth-century anti-imperialism only to recommend to our attention an alternative program of colonization: empire with a light touch. The book is to that extent best read as an invitation to relax one’s pro-indigenous stringency, to saunter back from yes-the-white-nationalist-but-also-the-pan-Indian margins and to rejoin the political center, which is where temperate varieties of empire live. Some of his judgments in defense of empire are so forthright that it must have taken his early readers a certain effort to overlook them: On p. 143, he describes French hegemony in the Great Lakes region as “benevolent.” In the introduction, he invites us to think of the colonial frontier as a place where “diverse people adjust their differences.” (x) [ii] The French settlers’ willingness to “create a common world” with the Great Lakes Indians went hand in hand with their determination to “sustain the French empire rather than defy it.” (316) When White pensively describes war between Indians and Europeans as “a rejection of a common world,” what we need to hear is his determination to keep Europeans in the mix, his preemptive closing off of anti-colonial struggle as undesirable and not just as ill-omened. (388) One might worry, of course, that the adjective “anti-colonial” is my own Third-Worldist back-projection in this context, the remaking of Pittsburgh into Vietnam or Algeria. But other historians are confident they can show that Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley generated North America’s first systematically anti-European and even anti-white belief system, a millenarian and self-consciously indigenist revival movement that eventuated both in a region-wide Indian uprising against Anglo settlers and, after that uprising’s failure, persistent appeals to the British and US governments to set and enforce a fixed border, the wager being that by surrendering the East Coast, the native Americans would be able to secure the rest of the continent as a kind of greater Indiana. Historians of the Great Lakes region always have the option, at least, of centering their story on such a politics. It seems to have been a key feature of the historical scene. White, however, is nowhere closer to the Anglo settlers who are the nominal villains of his piece than in his undiscriminating dismissal of all such border talk. Racial hostility, he writes, “drew lines across which friendship could not pass”—and he makes this claim of a period in which the major Indian political demand was for the drawing of a line. (395) Later, White singles out for special praise one ethnically Irish trader and sometime squatter on Indian land as a man “to whom the boundaries meant nothing.” (393) The historian, having given every indication that he will side with the Indians against the Anglo-Americans determined to displace them, nonetheless embraces the Indian policy of Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson: Boundaries mean nothing.[iii]

If White’s refurbished colonialism has been nonetheless easy to miss, then this has something to do with his writing style, which sometimes cops to its own imperialism, but mostly doesn’t. That The Middle Ground trades in geopolitical euphemism can be established in at least two different ways. First, one can read other historians of the eighteenth-century frontier, carefully logging the terms they use to describe relationships between Indians and their French governors, and then checking to see where White’s idiom falls on the spectrum of really existing rhetorical choices. The word to wonder about here is “allies,” which White favors: The French built an alliance in the Great Lakes region. A large and varied group of Indians became allies to the French. Turning to other books, one finds a major historian of the Seven Years’ War referring to “client communities” and “subordinated groups” (Anderson 2005: 17). An older historian of Pontiac’s Rebellion refers to “the French-dominated Indians” (Peckham 1947: 32). One important historian of Pontiac’s Rebellion refers to the Ottawa as “partners in empire,” a suggestively broken-backed term that simultaneously suggests French supremacy and rough parity for at least one group of Indians (Dowd 2002: 41). The Ottawa figure here either as coconspirators in their own subjugation or as comrades in the project to reduce other indigenous groups. One is thereby reminded that alliances with indigenous people, brokered by code-switching intermediaries, have been a regular feature of US expansion. The Americans recruited the Oneida and Tuscarora against the British; they recruited the Creek against the Seminole, the Pawnee and Crow against the Sioux; they recruited the Filipinos against the Spanish, and then recruited Spanish-trained Filipino soldiers against Filipino guerrillas and nationalists. Such alliances are not, as White would have it, the antithesis of Anglo-American empire—its alternative and eventual casualty. They have instead been one of that empire’s more persistent features (Grynaviski 2018).

But the most striking feature of White’s writing is not its penchant for euphemism, which, after all, is the coin in which imperial writing typically pays, but the latter’s tendency, in White’s hands, to de-euphemize, the tendency, I mean, for the flexible and multiracial liberalism that White posits to revert back to rigidly imperial poses. This brings us to the second way of sussing out euphemism in The Middle Ground. For that volume is often constrained to name its object in two different ways at once. It will be enough to cite the two most consequential instances:

1) What White typically names “alliance,” he sometimes calls “patriarchy”—a French patriarchy, that is, or at least a patriarchy with a French father—as when he describes the frontier as “the patriarchal union of empire and village.” (406) That he means this last as a term of praise, no less than “alliance” itself, is readily established: “Governor Duquesne … forgave [the Indians] in the manner of a stern but loving father, crediting his mercy to the intercession of his loyal children…” (232) Or there’s this, some two hundred pages later: “Patriarchy was in sad disrepair along the Wabash [River].” (424) It is the clash of these two categories, “patriarchy” and “alliance,” that sounds on those rare occasions when White uses them both in the same sentence: “the relationship of French fathers to their [Indian] children, that is, … relations of political and military alliance.” (96; see also, 104-5) What we won’t want to miss here is the flubbed synonymy, the unconvincing alignment of a horizantalist political register with the vocabulary of paternal authority and sociopolitical hierarchy. The autonomy and equality granted native people by the word “alliance” has been canceled in advance by the word “children,” which is to say, by the figuring of Indians as the Europeans’ juniors and wards, fantastic sons who will never become fathers in their own right, permanent minors in a patriarchy that has eliminated its otherwise defining principle of generational succession.

2) The Middle Ground is also fond of the word “mediator,” which is both implicit in its title and central to its argument. We thus read in the opening pages that the French gained a foothold amidst the Great Lakes only once they “became the mediators of a regional [Indian] alliance” (23)—by offering themselves as intermediaries between native groups, settling outstanding disputes, devising a shared political project, &c. The book also recommends to our attention a sequence of key figures over the course of the long eighteenth century—indigenophile Europeans, Europhile Indians, a half dozen mixed-race men—mediators of a second kind, then, the brokers who combatted the tendency of the frontier to polarize into distrust and recrimination, the go-betweens capable of discerning and need be inventing common interests between Indians and Europeans, mitigating cultural conflict, explaining each group to the other, and so on. Such people are plainly the architects and custodians of the middle ground. And yet a second term sneaks in behind “mediation” to challenge its claims. Late in the book, White praises the British for finally getting their Indian policy right during the later stages of the American Revolution: “The alliance the British had forged by the end of the Revolution was as close to the [Indian] conception of an alliance as they had thus far come.” (402) In these pages, White is especially interested in Alexander McKee, a half-Scots-Irish, half white-Shawnee trader who eventually rose to the rank of colonel in the British Indian Department and who functioned as liaison between Indians and the British in the area that would become Michigan. White calls him one of “the skilled Tory chiefs.” He also says this: “McKee, in particular, could manage ‘the Indians to a charm.’” (402) Anyone who has read enough Adorno was going to suspect all along that “mediation” really meant “management.” And yet this is a point that the critical theorist does not have to make on his own apodictic authority. White says as much: The mediator is the skilled manager of Indians. “Without the French,” Indian villages in the upper Midwest “became planets without a sun. There was nothing to keep them in their orbits, and they collided and clashed.” (274) This is how the history of the American West gets rewritten to accommodate contemporary preoccupations: Gone are the hunters and trappers and wrestlers of Arkansas bear. Into their place step culturally adroit administrators—the HR coordinators and freelance diversity consultants of the backcountry—who now become the heroes of an American epic. The result is a book that celebrates the patient recruiting of native people to European policies and priorities. Against conquest, The Middle Ground celebrates the negotiated takeover of Indian life.


[i] Historians have been busy revising and in some cases rejecting White’s account on empirical grounds. See especially the forum on “The Middle Ground Revisited” in The William and Mary Quarterly, 63.1 (2006), pp. 3 – 96. One might also consult Havard 2003 and Rushforth 2012. I would like to thank Guillaume Aubert for these references.

[ii] Fantasies of a more humane imperialism recur across the literature on colonial North America. Here’s Neal Salisbury (2000: 679), reviewing a book—Michael Oberg’s Dominion and Civility: English Imperialism and Native America, 1586 – 1685 (2003)—that takes itself to be documenting the fragility and failure of biracial society in the seventeenth century: “Michael Oberg reminds us that, from the beginning, imagined possibilities of coexistence with native peoples were as fully a part of Anglo-American public discourse as their less humane alternatives.”

[iii] That White was recommending the Middle Ground as a political model was recognized by at least one early reviewer. See James Clifton (1993: 283 – 284): “Underlying the author’s account of this Golden Age of Indian-European relationships in the Great Lakes area is an idealized, normative implication. Here may be the moral text he extracts as a lesson for our own, present consideration.” On the anti-colonial politics of many Ohio Valley Indians, see Gregory Evans Down 2002.  It is worth noting that variants of White’s position are now so common as to constitute the dominant position among imperial historians. They are more or less the Official Liberal Line on the history of empire. Tristram Hunt (2014: 9), an academic historian and Labour politician with a biography of Friedrich Engels under his belt, has remarked that the British should get out of the habit of renouncing the Empire as oppressive. Empire did more than visit slavery and famine upon vulnerable peoples; it involved “exchange, interaction, and adaptation.” John Darwin (2013: 11), senior historian of empire at Oxford, writes that imperial history is “not just a story of domination and subjection but something more complicated: the creation of novel or hybrid societies in which notions of governance, economic assumptions, religious values, and morals, ideas about property, and conceptions of justice, conflicted and mingled, to be reinvented, refashioned, tried out or abandoned.” This is the Raj as think tank or pilot program.

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